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Orton – Above the Stag, London

Writers: Richard Silver and Sean J Hume

Director: Tim McArthur

Reviewer: Nichola Daunton

Making a musical that ends with the hero being bludgeoned to death with a hammer is not an easy task, but writers Richard Silver and Sean J Hume have just about pulled it off. Orton is a funny, inventive and highly camp affair that perfectly captures Joe Orton’s lust for life, rise to fame and the heavy price he pays for both at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.

The musical explores Orton’s and Halliwell’s relationship from the very beginning, starting with their inital meeting at RADA, a school they both dropped out of to focus on their writing. Socially awkward, and emotionally scarred from seeing both his parents die, Halliwell’s peculiar mix of vulnerability and self assurance is well portrayed by actor Andrew Rowney, who brings to the character the air of a tweedy little school boy who has just been caught doing something he shouldn’t. Playing against him, Richard Dawes’ Orton is a brave, brash and unashamed man, full of life and determined to explore everything he can, with or without Halliwell’s permission.

Orton’s enthusiasm and desire, particularly for men, is captured by both Dawes and the many musical numbers throughout the performance. Brimming with infectious joy, although many of the songs are similar in tone and theme and are unlikely to stick in your head afterwards, they are nonetheless excellent in the moment and performed with verve and enthusiasm by the cast and chorus. One particular highlight is a song about the joys of cottaging, an hilarious number which makes excellent use of multi-doored set. Given that they have very little space to work with in the theatre, the set designer, along with director Tim McArthur have made some very canny and creative decisions about how to get the best out of what they have, and although in the future the musical may benefit from a bigger stage, for now the limited room doesn’t drain the performances, or indeed the actors, sense of energy.

Credit must also be given to Simon Kingsley, whose hilarious interpretation of Kenneth Williams, a close friend of Orton’s, got the biggest cheer of the night. With just the right mix of high camp and seething repression, Kingsley perfectly captures Williams’ spirit and complexity. Valerie Cutko is also very good as Orton’s agent, though less convincing as the couples concerned neighbour. Her voice is also the weakest of all in terms of strength, a factor which is especially difficult to get around given the rumble of trains above.

As an exploration of a vibrant and witty couple, Orton is a fresh and inventive nights entertainment, but as an exploration of Halliwell’s unravelling mental state, the night is less successful. Tackling murder and suicide in a musical, especially a very funny musical, was always going to be tricky, and while the script does plant the seed that Halliwell might have problems from the very beginning, his decline is far too rapid, making it a little unbelievable when the murder suddenly happens. Despite this though, Orton is a very worthy and inventive tribute to a very talented man, and the life that he passionately shared with his eventual murderer.

Photo: Derek Drescher

Runs until 4th May

Writers: Richard Silver and Sean J Hume Director: Tim McArthur Reviewer: Nichola Daunton Making a musical that ends with the hero being bludgeoned to death with a hammer is not an easy task, but writers Richard Silver and Sean J Hume have just about pulled it off. Orton is a funny, inventive and highly camp affair that perfectly captures Joe Orton’s lust for life, rise to fame and the heavy price he pays for both at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell. The musical explores Orton’s and Halliwell’s relationship from the very beginning, starting with their inital meeting…

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